In sparkling detail, Caro shows the new president’s genius for getting to people — friends, foes and everyone in between — and how he used it to achieve his goals. We’ve all seen the iconic photos of L.B.J. leaning into a conversation, poking his thick finger into a confidant’s chest or wrapping his long arm around a shoulder. At 6 foot 4, he towered over most men, but even seated Johnson commanded from on high. Caro relates how during a conversation about civil rights, he placed Roy Wilkins and his N.A.A.C.P. entourage on one of the couches in the Oval Office, yet still towered over them as he sat up close in his rocking chair. And he didn’t need to be in the same room — he was great at manipulating, cajoling and even bullying over the phone.
He knew just how to get to you, and he was relentless in doing it.
If you were a partisan, he’d call on your patriotism; if a traditionalist, he’d make his proposal seem to be the Establishment choice. His flattery was minutely detailed, finely tuned and perfectly modulated. So was his bombast — whatever worked. L.B.J. didn’t kiss Sam Rayburn’s ring, but his lips did press against his bald head. Harry Byrd received deference and attention. When L.B.J. became president, he finally had the power to match his political skills.
Bill Clinton’s amazing review of Robert Caro’s new LBJ book in the Times makes me nostalgic for a Washington that wasn’t wrecked by political gridlock and partisanship. I wonder how LBJ’s political skills would work these days.